Of sacred and profane places

MARCH 4 — Roughly a week after the lunar new year started, a mosque in Singapore held a Chinese New Year event in its compound, as a show of close ties between the Muslim and ethnic Chinese community.

The Yusof Ishak mosque in Woodlands — a new modern mosque named after the republic’s first president — invited around 100 residents of three old folks’ homes and there was even a stage show where songs were sung in Chinese to Malay tunes.

The event was covered by Singapore’s only Malay daily, Berita Harian, and was graced by their education minister Ong Ye Kung, and MP Vikram Nair. The festivities were initially praised by some as an epitome of Singapore’s brand of Islam.

“This is a fortune to our country because of the mutual understanding, unity and co-operation and respect for each other from all walks of Singapore,” the mosque chairman was quoted as saying, adding that the mosque staff had also been invited to celebrate the joyous occasion in a neighbouring monastery.

It did not take long for it to receive backlash from some Muslims there — as Malaysian readers would have expected by the second paragraph of this column.

Online comments ranged from questioning why a mosque had even allowed such a celebration to be held on its grounds, to accusing it of disrespecting Islam, to warning of “liberal Islam” in the country, to condemnation as performers were recorded dancing inside a mosque.

The mosque later apologised, explaining the dance was part of an impromptu segment demonstrating traditional Malay dance to the attendees.

Compare to that the furore against celebrity entrepreneur Neelofa who launched her latest line of turbans for her Naelofar Hijab brand, called Be Lofa, together with her birthday celebrations at nightclub Zouk KL last weekend.

Neelofa was criticised for launching her latest product (and celebrating her birthday) at Zouk recently. – Picture by Choo Choy May
Neelofa was criticised for launching her latest product (and celebrating her birthday) at Zouk recently. – Picture by Choo Choy May

Similarly, Neelofa was widely panned by Muslims here who accused her of insulting Islam and “normalising” Muslim women who cover their hair and go to nightclubs.

The company explained that precautions were taken that attendees would not come into contact with liquor, and food served was halal and came from an external caterer.

The nightclub itself was closed on that night, and therefore was available as an event space. Those familiar with the urban phenomenon of product launches would be familiar with Zouk as a venue for such events, especially when it comes to beauty and fashion industries.

But still, some had called for a boycott of her products, and the Islamist lobby was only too happy to suggest that religious authorities should charge her for making a mockery out of Islam.

The Federal Territories mufti even penned an open letter to her — a trend that seems to have spiralled out of control among Islamic enforcers of recent times.

Both Naelofar Hijab and Neelofa herself apologised, even when the latter had initially defiantly insisted that she had done nothing wrong and would not apologise in the face of public criticism.

A similar theme ran through both incidents: a misguided notion among Muslims in this region that there exists a separation between two types of spaces — the sacred and the profane.

The mosque is considered sacred, and therefore the “profane” shall not taint it; this includes singing, dancing, as well as non-Muslims especially non-Muslim lawmakers.

This also includes women when they do not match the patriarchal standards of piety. Recently on Twitter, a young woman had complained about the hassle she had to face to just visit National Mosque, since the officials thought she was non-Muslim, and later, because she was wearing jeans.

Meanwhile the antithesis, the nightclub, is considered profane. It is pictured as a place where sinners get drunk and high, writhing lustily with each other to filthy beats, and inevitably do unspeakable things in the dark — or rather indescribable, since many who think so perhaps have never even stepped foot inside one.

And hence, the “sacred” has no business inside such spaces. And yet again, women who cover their hair — unfairly exalted as a paragon for the whole religion — should not enter lest they bring disrepute to Islam.

It is the same notion that fuels jihadists into bombing pubs or entertainment districts, from the 2016 Movida Bar grenade attack here to the deadly Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005.

Immediately, we can see how this notion does not hold up to scrutiny. After all, you can find prayer rooms inside a shopping mall that serves liquor, pork and other delights forbidden to Muslims.

This notion however gets more dangerous when some Muslims try to push more and more of this sacred status into the public space shared between people of all faiths and cultures.

That is how we get protests against churches in areas where Muslims live when previously we find houses of worship on the same row, but mosques will insist on blaring their loudspeakers at odd times even when Muslims themselves oppose such insensitive indulgence.

That is how we get calls for non-Muslim festivities and worship to be kept behind closed doors, and yet Muslims are free to organise carnivals in public squares and during secular celebrations.

That is how we get segregation in supermarkets, to shopping trolleys, to school canteens, to keeping temptations away from Muslims during Ramadan.

Even worse, this segregation of the sacred and profane is creeping into the internet, where ideas and cultural exchanges are supposed to happen freely.

It manifests itself as moral policing and slutshaming under the guise of “dakwah”, or evangelism. And women are easy victims for those who wish to display their misplaced faith.

In the space of recent weeks, we have seen: actress-turned-singer Kilafairy accused of “pole dancing” just for merely swaying in the video to her catchy debut single, model-singer Zizi Kirana slammed for showing cleavage on Instagram, and model Alicia Amin harassed by an online mob for daring to appear topless in her holiday photos.

This segregation is driving a wedge into our society, and it must be challenged, and not through negotiation.

As Neelofa found out the hard way, even pandering to the religious modesty culture will not save oneself, for there is always one way or another to see others as not virtuous enough.

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